The Whole Language Or Phonics Approach English Language Essay

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Critically analyse and discuss the benefits and shortcomings in teaching reading through a phonics approach in comparison to a whole language methodology. What are your views about each approach? Support your arguments with references from related literature.

Teaching students to read is a vital educational aim. Reading gives opportunities and opens up new worlds. Learning to read, will enable students gain new knowledge, enjoy texts, and do everyday life things. The phonics and the whole language approaches are two main methods to reading, a debate that still rages among educators, parents, and experts. Which approach to teaching reading works best?

Whole language approach

Teachers using the whole language approach are expected to provide rich environment texts for students combined with speaking, listening, reading and writing. This approach emphasise the meaning of texts over the sounds of letter and phonics instruction. Krammer and Holland found out that the whole language approach is considered a 'top down' approach meaning the reader use his prior knowledge to interpret and construct his personal meaning of the text he is reading. In my opinion I think that this approach provides a better understanding of the text and a more interesting and creative approach to reading but it may come at the expense of accuracy and correctness.

Phonics approach

The phonics approach has five key elements to teaching. These are:

Learning the letter sounds

Learning letter formation


Identifying sounds in words

Spelling the tricky words (Jolly Phonics: Lloyd, S.)

Kelly believes that good phonic skills will help students become better readers. It provides a secure grasp of the essential sound and spelling patterns that words are composed of. There are 44 key phonemes in the English language. "Some of these are single alphabet sounds such as s-a-t-p-i-n, but others may be combinations of letters like sh, ck or ie." (Kelly, 2009)

Now, I will discuss the benefits and drawbacks in teaching reading through a phonics approach in comparison to a whole language methodology.

Benefits in teaching reading through a phonics approach

Using the phonics approach to reading helps the reader to build better the pronunciation and word recognition (Krammer and Holland). When an individual starts to pronounce words correctly, it also starts to build confidence to speak up more often (English for Life, 2008). Improved decoding success creates a secure reader. "Facility and ease in identifying polysyllabic words, and in inferring their meanings from a knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and roots, help students with comprehension" (Chall, J. & Popp, H.).

"Teaching phonics can help students develop the skills to read smoothly and accurately. When faced with a new word, a student will have an arsenal of tools with which to puzzle it out and call it by name--recognizing familiar letter combinations and accessing their recollection of similar words. Students who are secure in their ability to figure out unfamiliar words are more eager to read new and longer texts." (Matthews, 2010) Readers cannot rely only on the use of context and picture clues. Wiley Blevins stated that students need to have a repertoire of strategies to draw on to become skilled, fluent readers.

Phonics approach helps with the spelling far more than the memorisation and guess work of the whole language approach (Krammer and Holland). A person will be able to pronounce and spell correctly when he hears words. For this reason, phonics will help him improve his reading and writing skills (English for Life, 2008).

Drawbacks in teaching reading through a phonics approach

Although the phonics approach might work for some students, it may not work equally well for others. This is due to diverse individual learning abilities. For example:

Students with hearing challenges may find it difficult to connect sounds and letter groups.

Students with dyslexia often reverse groups of letters, causing confusion with phonetic learning.

Besides that, some children learn to read more easily using other methods. For instance, the whole language approach teaches children to recognise entire words, rather than individual sounds (Enne, V.).

I agree with Krammer and Holland that when it comes to reading using the phonics approach a child may have difficulty understanding the full meaning of a text, due to the constant breaking down of words into parts. This will also bring boredom; children would not be able to enjoy the text contrary to the whole language approach. Fleury declares that "phonics does not connect the children with literature, as the whole language approach does. The connection to literature helps to make reading more interesting."

It is true that phonics helps children to sound out many different words but there are other words that do not follow simple phonetic rules. "These words, called outlaw words, will still need to be memorised. Nearly 50 percent of all English words are outlaw words." (Available from:

Should you categorise students and push one teaching method?

In my opinion I think that I balanced approach should be used in teaching reading. The National Reading Panel determined that "phonics instruction is only one part of a complete reading program for beginning readers. Effective beginning reading programs should also emphasize reading fluency, vocabulary development, and text comprehension."

(Available from:

In 1996, Honig, stated that a balanced approach is needed to teach reading. He described it as "an approach that combines the language and literature-rich activities associated with whole language activities aimed at enhancing meaning, understanding, and the love of language with explicit teaching skills as needed to develop fluency associated with proficient readers."

In the article 'Curriculum: Whole Language and Phonics: Can They Work Together?' written by Cromwell, S. (1997) says that "Supporters of the whole language approach think children's literature, writing activities, and communication activities can be used across the curriculum to teach reading; backers of phonics instruction insist that a direct, sequential mode of teaching enables students to master reading in an organised way".

There is an ongoing debate on which is the best way to teach a child how to read. Phonics helps children to pronounce better and recognise the words. It helps them far more than memory and guess work used in the whole language approach. Formulas learned in phonics can be applied repeatedly. On the other hand, using the whole language approach helps children to understand better different types of texts. It is much more interesting and creative to reading rather than the phonics' approach. Whole language approach emphasises on meaning and comprehension. Children memorise large numbers of sight words and learn to read by reading.

I do not have enough experience but I can speak from my 3 years of teaching practice. I believe that both approaches must be used hence using a balanced reading approach. Most children learn through an amalgamation of skills. Each method offers different strategies. One has to remove the idea of "one size fits all" and keep in mind that every child is different. There is no one best method to teach children. says that "Many combinations and permutations are necessary to provide an optimal learning environment for an entire class of readers"

A teacher must be careful when teaching reading keeping in mind the different abilities of his students and focusing on literature and fun. After all, it is the teacher who makes the difference in the learning process. I believe that a teacher should provide time to read to his students often, choral read with them and also give them time to read both alone and in pairs.

I remember that when I used to teach phonics through word games, to year 2 students, it used to work. Students where learning by having fun. Spending only a brief time each day on phonics and doing no more than one worksheet daily I eliminated boredom. It is important to try other reading approaches for students who are not able to learn phonics easily. Through research, I found out that recorded books or story writing might help.

I make it a point that in my classroom I have a library. Unfortunately I have been in some schools where school libraries are not available. Students who have social problems how can they be exposed to literacy? It is highly important to expose children to books. It is important to have books in classroom so that students can browse, read and discuss them. Krammer and Holland state that when using a balanced reading approach, a teacher should provide as much structure as possible and some step-by-step skill work, especially for analytic students, while emphasising literature and fun. Also, a teacher should provide sufficient tools for decoding words, using small amounts of direct instruction in phonics for auditory and analytic learners. Tape-recording phonics lessons will help students to work independently to improve their skills.

Visual learners tend to benefit from the whole language approach while auditory learners rely more on phonics since they hear the sound of letters and identify words. A balanced reading approach will probably be most beneficial!

Finally I conclude using a balanced approach to teach reading will probably be most beneficial.

IAE (2003) discovered that both research and classroom practices support the use of a balanced approach in instruction. The motive for this is because reading depends on efficient word recognition and comprehension. I agree that therefore instruction should develop reading skills and strategies, as well as build on the learners' knowledge through the use of authentic texts. (Bernhardt, 1991; Bernhardt, 2000; Hulstijn, 1991; Kamil, Mosenthal & Pearson, 2000; Snow Burns & Griffin, 1998)